Dark themes abound in this psychological period piece, adapted from John Patrick Shanley’s Tony Award winning play of the same name.
The seemingly simple plot becomes increasingly twisted as we follow the exploits of coarse, puritanical schoolmistress, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), as she attempts to uncover the truth behind the inappropriately close relationship that her superior, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), has developed with the school’s first black student.
While the Oscar buzz surrounding this ecclesiastical drama might seem a little over the top, (considering all four of the film’s main actors are being recognised by the academy for their efforts), the intensity shared between Hoffman and Streep is certainly reason enough for their respective ‘best actor/actress’ nominations.
While the other characters certainly hold their own, it is the war of words between paragon of virtue, Sister Aloysius, and the manipulative suspected child molester that constitutes the film’s core. And, thanks to the brilliant performances from these two leads and some particularly clever writing, the debate never loses its edge.
Flynn manages to be a disturbingly likeable character despite being such an obvious manipulator, and the ambiguity of his speech and actions constantly undermines his opponent’s arguments. One also has to ask if Aloysius’ own motives for her pursuit are truly pure, and not simply contrived due to her own jealousy of Flynn’s popularity amongst their church-going community.
Hoffman, who is not averse to playing despicable characters, once again throws the audience a curve-ball with his surprisingly charismatic performance, and his interactions with Donald, the student around which the film is centred, are actually rather poignant.
These two characters are strengthened through the small, but brilliant supporting cast, which includes the Oscar-nominated Amy Adams and newcomer Viola Davis, both of whom, despite having little screen time, manage to provide some of the film’s most powerful scenes.
Adams, who plays a naÃ¯ve younger nun within the diocese, manages to keep up with the more experienced actors and proves to be a competent foil for Streep’s far more hardened mentor-figure. Her convincing wide-eyed innocence and inability to choose a side in the conflict helps to maintain the aforementioned ambiguity, and her final scenes, in which she finally accepts the truth, are most likely the reason behind her nomination.
However, Viola Davis, who plays Donald’s defeated and victimised mother, surpasses Adams in her role, even considering the fact that she has fewer scenes. Believing that her son is most likely homosexual, she actually puts forth an argument that an inappropriate sexual relationship with a powerful member of the community may provide Donald with the protection he needs as both an African American, as well as someone who is sexually against the norm.
Her painful misunderstanding of the wrong-doings against her son is born out of a need for acceptance that only someone who has been sufficiently persecuted could understand, and Davis captures this conflicted attitude perfectly.
Doubt does force the audience through the occasional lull, and may perhaps be wordier than the average drama, but this isn’t surprising considering the film’s stage origins. However, Director John Patrick Shanley, who also wrote this screen adaptation, (and is clearly desperate to see his work adapted correctly), manages to keep his audience riveted through his subtle take on subject matter that could easily have descended into melodrama.